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Halifax Regional Council approves rules for secondary and backyard suites

Will it fix the affordable housing problem in HRM? Probably not. Can it help? We'll see.

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The rules don't come with design-specific requirements, but space and size will be controlled. - HRM
  • HRM
  • The rules don't come with design-specific requirements, but space and size will be controlled.
H alifax Regional Council has unanimously approved the bylaw and planning rule amendments to allow secondary and backyard suites in homes across HRM.

In a virtual public hearing on September 1, Jillian MacLellan, a planner with HRM explained that a secondary suite is a separate dwelling section within a home or in simpler terms, a basement, and a backyard suite is a building separated from the home but still within the same property.

To watch live-reporting of the meeting via The Coast Halifax's Instagram stories click here.

In her presentation, MacLellan explained that these dwellings can increase the density of neighbourhoods and make for more rental accommodation—especially important with the vacancy rate in Halifax being one percent. She said they can provide additional income for homeowners and promote affordable housing for the city.

This process officially started on March 27, 2018, when council initiated the process of considering amendments to planning documents after years of hearing from the community about the need for better guidelines.

City staff engaged the public later that year through surveys, emails, phone calls and meetings to get their opinion on the matter. In the online survey, 94 percent of the public voted in favour of secondary suites and 84 percent for backyard suites, with the most common reasons being the ability to house family members, to make for affordable housing and to provide more rental opportunities.

MacLellan also noted that secondary suites would have to comply with the size of the main home and can not be more than 80 square metres while background suites would have a maximum size of 90 square metres. These numbers may differ depending on the area the homes are in and their own area-specific planning rules. 

Now that it’s been approved, staff are also working on information sheets and FAQs to share with people who are interested in including these suites in their homes.

At the public hearing—the final step of approving changes like these in HRM—26 members of the public shared their mixed feelings about the proposed amendment and housing and its affordability in general. 

Liam O’Rourke, the executive director of Lake City Works, a charitable organization in Dartmouth that works to employ people living with mental illnesses, spoke on the districts he resides and works in, Districts 5 and 6. He says although the proposal is a good one, it doesn't directly fix the issue of affordable housing but adds that he would "wholeheartedly put my support behind this because I think it would start things moving in that direction,” he says.

Some residents from the community of Westmount were not in full support of having these suites. A member of the neighbourhood, Ted Vaughan says residents of his community do not fully understand the impact of this amendment. “We need a clear stitching of what metes and bounds or restrictions that were within the bylaw back into the city centre plan,” he says. He asked the city council to clearly define the bylaw restrictions for secondary and backyard suites.

The area of Westmount is an example of where area-specific rules will likely overrule these new changes—so there are actually very few properties within the neighbourhood that would qualify to put in the suites.

Gerry Post also spoke at the meeting. He uses a wheelchair and says he supports the introduction of secondary suites but would recommend that it’s built to accommodate people with physical disabilities through regulation or incentives. “What’s really important obviously then is to make sure that whatever we do here, we ensure that these units are built to an accessible standard,” he says.

Councillor Lindell Smith also had similar concerns about the accessibility issues backyard suites may come with. The rules as passed do not directly address accessibility. Backyard suites must have road access (going through the original property doesn't cut it), but there are no specifications about what that road access is made of or how wide it is. MacLellan told councillor Smith it is something that could be addressed in the form of a performance standard. And could also be included as a supplementary report. Councillor Smith will bring the issue forward at a later meeting. 

Many had concerns about how these changes would interact with and be affected by short-term rentals like Airbnb. Councillor Shawn Cleary says the public’s concerns on people using the new suites as short term rentals are valid, adding that it does not need to be addressed in this by law. “Most of the people I hear from are actually people who want their elderly parents to live with them. They want their young adult child to live with them,” he says.

“We do have a housing crisis that needs to be addressed,” he says. “With one percent vacancy rate and double-digit increases in retail prices even during a pandemic, we need to do something to get more people safely housed in Halifax,” says Cleary.

Short-term rentals
will be addressed in council by September 22nd.

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